Tuesday, December 08, 2015

And Then I Retired

Retirement is pretty sweet!

It was my own fault really. I took my eye off the ball, let my attention wander and simply lost track of time. So, without my doing anything at all to prevent it, I turned 65. And, by the rules of the game, I was sent to the bench. If I’d paid closer attention, I just wouldn’t have turned 65. I’d have refused.

It’s difficult to complain too much. I knew the rules when I joined, I knew my age at that time and I have a fairly decent grasp of simple math. My retirement date was, therefore, an easy calculation to make. On the last day of the month in which you turn 65 you must, by law, retire from the Foreign Service. So I did. Law abiding, that’s me. For those of you who are considering retirement, it’s critical to choose the right date. Especially in cases like mine where you don’t have 20 or more years of service. State assigns a Retirement Counselor to each potential retiree and one of the things that person will do is advise you on the optimal date to retire. In my case, any date other than the last day of the month in which I turned 65 would have cost me hundreds of dollars a month in my annuity payment. Even retiring one day earlier would have resulted in a pretty severe penalty. It all has to do with a government formula that I won't even begin to try to understand, much less explain.

Little known fact: I became temporary Kashmiri Royalty during my tour in Islamabad.

When I turned 65, I was still in Papua New Guinea, still the Management Officer in Embassy Port Moresby and still enjoying every minute of my brief career. Against all odds (and the early betting line amongst my colleagues), I had received tenure, become fluent in a language other than English, spent two fantastic years in Rome, been promoted twice, worked in a ‘Danger’ post and volunteered for three years at a ‘Hard-To-Fill’ post. I’d worked in three different bureaus (SCA, EUR and EAP), been a GSO, Econ Officer, Consular Officer and Management Officer. I’d met crowds of interesting people, made many new friends and couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Little known fact: I often walked around disguised as a tourist in Rome.

As I told my friends, I had only one regret. When we first joined, during the orientation session on handling classified material, our instructors explained to us that we would have to be vigilant and wary, especially those of us who happened to be older men (that would have been me) because attractive young women were sometimes used to try to pry classified information from gullible aging Officers. I did everything but carry a sign saying, “I have secrets and I’m remarkably gullible!” all to no avail. I retired with my secrets intact and my escutcheon unbesmirched.  Seriously though, I would never discuss classified material with anyone because of my fear of punish sense of personal honor.

Little known fact: I joined the Hela Tribe in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea!

So, on the last day of the month in which I turned 65, I left Embassy Port Moresby and flew back to the U.S. as an Annuitant. I registered in the WAE program with Human Resources, took my check-out physical and sat back to let retirement happen. WAE stands for ‘When Actually Employed’ and it gives retirees, who are interested, an opportunity to return to work on short term contracts to fill gaps. We are allowed to work a maximum of six months a year and there is a cap on our earnings. Accepting or declining an offer is completely voluntary, so I signed up.

If you want to be eligible for the WAE program, you have to maintain your security clearance and your Class One medical clearance and there’s a box on the medical check-out form to indicate your intent. You have two options for the physical, you can travel to Washington DC and take the physical free-of-charge at the State Department’s medical facility or you can take the handful of forms to your own physician and have him or her perform the exam. After which and upon submission of another handful of forms the State Department will reimburse you. I retired straight out of post and didn’t want to return to DC just for the physical. I was moving to my new home and didn’t have a doctor there yet so this gave me an opportunity to sort of ‘kick the tires’ on one for free. 

I found a doctor with an office not too far from my home and made an appointment. I handed him my stack of forms and explained that each and every little box had to be checked off. He looked the forms over and made doctor noises, “Hmmmm. Ahhhh. UmHuh!” Then he said, “Well, I suggest that we just give you the standard physical for men in your age group. A few of these tests and procedures are unnecessary and one or two of them we don’t even recommend any more.” He then tossed the mandatory government medical forms quite cavalierly onto his desk and explained in perfect doctorese why many of the 'little boxes' were totally unnecessary and then said, "now take off everything but your undershorts and the opening in the gown goes in the back." 

I had to explain that each and every little box had to be checked off or the Department of State would not renew my Class One medical clearance and I would then be ineligible for any potential WAE assignments. This requirement for mandatory box-checking troubled the good doctor who had, apparently, made it into his early fifties without ever having come into any contact whatsoever with the government or its obsession with forms! After a good bit of to and fro, he agreed to poke, prod and probe in the government required manner and we began the exam, at the end of which he was able to attest that I still had all the bits and pieces I’d had when I joined and all were, more or less, healthy and in working condition.

So, I was a retiree or in State-speak an annuitant, and I began to do the things retirees do. I slept in, I got a library card and began working my way, alphabetically, through the fiction stacks, I fixed things in my house and then called professionals to come and repair the damage I’d caused, I washed my car, I visited my sons and my granddaughter, I wrote a novel, I deleted said novel from my computer and destroyed the notes, I played three or four rounds of golf and washed my car. 

A tree fell on my house and there wasn’t a GSO in sight to take care of it for me. My heat pump threw up its hands, said, “No mas!” and died. Facilities Manager?… absent with the GSO. Oh, the pool equipment needs to be replaced? Yep, all of it! I quickly discovered that this whole homeowner business wasn’t all it was cracked up to be as, one after another, every major appliance and system in my house died or blew up. I longed for the days when I could complain about my housing and express righteous indignation if it didn't meet up to my lofty standards. It was definitely time to lobby for some WAE opportunities.

Little known fact: There's never a GSO around when you need one!

I wrote brief emails to several bureaus asking to be considered for any WAE opportunities they might have in their posts’ Management sections. Then I sat back and drew up a list of the criteria I’d use to select the perfect offer so the Department could notify the lucky post:

  • Interesting location with scuba diving nearby 
  • Extraordinarily competent locally employed staff 
  • A country not expected to host a Presidential or Sec. State visit 
  • A place my friends would want to visit
  • Good restaurants near the embassy
  • Housing without trees falling on the roof

Then I washed my car, played another round of golf, began a second novel and made it through the D’s in the library. State was obviously playing it coy but I wouldn’t just jump at any old offer. I wasn’t desperate. The second novel followed the first into the fire and I began to lobby a bit harder. 

After I had sent several friendly ‘reminder’ emails to the WAE contacts in several bureaus, I received a reply from EAP asking if I’d be interested in going back to Papua New Guinea for four or five months beginning in June of 2015 to cover an unexpected gap in the GSO position. My initial reaction was decidedly negative. I had just spent three very enjoyable years in PNG but I was hoping for someplace different for my first temporary assignment. EAP is loaded with incredible opportunities and PNG is only one of them. When it became apparent that this was the only offer I was going to get, I jumped at it and became a WAEer. So, my first job in retirement was to go back to the post I’d just left and become the GSO reporting to the woman who had taken my old job as Management Officer. It was actually a great opportunity and I was happy to go back. 

The way compensation works as a WAEer is pretty straightforward. You are not on the FS pay scale any longer so you're put on the Civil Service GS pay scale. If you retired at any Foreign Service grade below Senior FS you are put on the GS13 pay scale at the step closest to your pay rate at your time of retirement.You don't get any health benefits (although, presumably, you are already covered through your retirement benefits) and you can't make any further contributions to the TSP. You don't get paid any of the post's differentials until your 43rd day at post and then it isn't retroactive to your first day. You don't get paid holidays, sick leave or premium time no matter how many hours you work. What you do get is your hourly rate of pay for every single hour you are on the clock. I wasn't going back to work for the money (although it was very nice!) so most of those pay related items were irrelevant to me. I was going back to work so I wouldn't wash my car again!

Vania (the Management Officer) and I knew each other and had worked well together in the past so the three months should have gone by pretty quickly. However, when I arrived at post I learned that the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) was going to be held in Port Moresby in early September and the Department was sending a contingent of approximately 40 people to attend it. They would require a considerable amount of support. We were also scheduled to receive an Inspector General's audit in October and had to begin to prepare for it by completing tremendously long questionnaires. The GSO questionnaire alone contained over 400 questions. Housing faced the usual problems all posts experience during the summer change-over season and, oh, virtually every single motor pool vehicle needed to be replaced and we were short three drivers and a dispatcher. By the way, the DCM was departing post and Vania would need to spend a month back in DC while I was in Port Moresby. In other words, it was business as usual and I felt like I'd come home. We were able to build on some good things that had been begun and worked hard to improve things that needed improvement. I arrived in June and departed in mid-September on the day the PIF ended. I was pleased with what had been accomplished and felt that I'd contributed to the effort. As my flight took off over Port Moresby I looked down on the city with a bit of sadness knowing that I'd probably never see PNG again.

In October, EAP contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in returning to PNG in January, February and March 2016. The offer was tempting but I had already made some personal plans for much of that time and besides…”EAP is loaded with incredible opportunities,” in countries other than Papua New Guinea! I declined the offer and asked to be considered for other opportunities in Summer 2016. Going back to work as a WAEer is great and I hope that there's a gap somewhere that I can fill for a couple of months next year. 

While I wait for State to call, I think I’ll write a novel…right after I wash my car.

This is one of my new neighbors. He lives in the pond by my house.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Highlands and Islands

When you are first hired by the Foreign Service, you are invited to join the American Foreign Service Association or AFSA. It seemed like a good idea at the time so I joined and, thereafter, the princely sum of $11.65 was deducted from each paycheck to pay my dues. And, since that first day I have remained, thanks to these automatic deductions from my paycheck, a member in good standing of this professional association. I receive from them a magazine published monthly (more or less) and a newsletter published irregularly. Oh, and it also turns out that AFSA is a union and I am, therefore, a dues-paying union man. Woody Guthrie, Upton Sinclair, John L. Lewis, Wobblies and me! Why is this of interest?  Well…..

Recently, I discovered that I have a difference of opinion with the Department of State. As differences of opinion in labor history go, this one doesn’t quite rank up there with the bloody battles of the steel workers or the coal miners in the early 1900’s but it has offered me a lesson or two on the grievance process as practiced by diplomats. As Will Rogers once said, “Diplomacy is the art of saying, ‘Nice doggy’ until you can find a rock!”

It all began back in 2011 when I received my assignment to become the Management Officer in Embassy Port Moresby; an embassy designated as a Hard-To-Fill post. In order to encourage competent and qualified bidders to serve at our Hard-To-Fill posts, the Department offers a Service Needs Differential payment as an incentive. To qualify for the SND payment, an officer must serve at the HTF post for three years. A two year assignment would have left me with an awkward eleven month gap until my mandatory retirement date in August 2014, so I volunteered for a three year tour. At the end of my first year at post I received the SND payment for that year. At the end of my second year at post I received the SND payment for that year. Then this year the Department of State said, “Hey, wait a minute! You’re going to miss serving the required time at post and don’t qualify for the SND payments.”

Due to my mandatory retirement date I will actually miss serving the full three years at post by three days. Even with mandatory retirement I would still have been at post long enough to qualify if I hadn’t been required to attend a mandatory training course and then a mandatory conference. In my opinion, missing the full three years by three days due to a series of mandatory events might qualify me for a waiver and allow me to receive the third year’s payment. Post’s front office agreed, the Bureau’s management agreed, my Human Resources rep agreed. Unfortunately, the panel of people deciding on the waiver did not agree. They determined that I would not have to repay the first two SND payments I’d already received but would not receive the third. Because diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way, I decided to, diplomatically, express my disagreement with the panel’s decision and I appealed my case to the Director General.

The DG gave my appeal due consideration, shook his head and said, “Nope!” Ok. Churchill once said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to Hell in such a way that they ask for directions.”  After asking for directions I sat at my desk pondering my next move. (I’m not ashamed to admit that the directions were somewhat confusing so I didn’t go.) My options seemed to be to A) give up, B) fire off an email filled with righteous indignation steeped in a tone of incredulity, or C) whine privately to the few semi-sympathetic friends who still listen to me. Then I remembered AFSA and the dues I’ve been coughing up since 2007. Silence in the Union Hall, Brother Gemmell has the floor and wishes to air his grievance! More accurately, since AFSA doesn’t actually have a Union Hall, I crafted a polite email asking for their advice and opinion and sent it off. As the Brits used to say, “Down tools, mates, we’re off until they see us right!”

AFSA, my union, has to date chosen to ignore this obviously complex and thorny issue. But I expect to hear from them any day now and I’m preparing the picket signs in advance. Brothers and sisters, to the barricades!!

Sorcery and Turtles

I took some time off to tour parts of PNG that I haven’t had an opportunity to see yet. I flew up to Mt. Hagen in the highlands and visited some villages around that city, then traveled by road to Goroka on the Highlands Highway. The Highlands Highway, the longest stretch of ‘improved’ road in the country, is a pitted, pot-holed, decaying two lane goat track that demands a somewhat na├»ve conviction that you won’t be swept away or squashed by the frequent landslides that occur along its path. Oh, and a four-wheel drive vehicle is mandatory.

Somewhere between Mt. Hagen and Goroka, the driver pulled off the majestic Highlands Highway and drove down a rutted dirt footpath to a small village. I assumed that this planned stop was going to be a sing-sing, a performance in which the tribe dresses in their traditional costumes and hops up and down while chanting and beating on drums. Sing-sings are really interesting when dozens of tribes get together and strut their stuff in friendly competition. They’re not quite as fascinating when one lone tribe hops up and down by themselves in their own village. So, I prepared to be a good sport and just hoped that the ‘performance’ wouldn’t last too long and we could be on our way.

Instead of a sing-sing, the tribe performed a play in pantomime. I sat on a log bench and my guide stood behind me describing in great and vivid detail exactly what I was seeing. The story involved a ghost who lived in a cave in the region and who stole, killed and presumably ate children. The ghost looked like the misbegotten love-child of a bear and an enormous rat. The villagers were painted like skeletons and the cave was a brush covered cubby-hole. The acting was decent, the plot was interesting and my guide’s interpretation was unnecessary but enthusiastic. “Do you see,” he whispered in my ear, “the ghost is coming out of his cave!” Yep, here he comes. In the end, the villagers kill the ghost by cutting off its tail.

This play, the guide assured me after the performance, is a reenactment of real events. If we had time he could show me the cave in which the ghost lived before the villagers managed to kill it. After the ghost was killed, it moved to another valley and the villagers even know the location of its new cave. That, you’d assume, would be the end of that. The ghost is now another village’s problem. Unfortunately, the evil spirit of the dead and relocated ghost stills drifts around in the hills and periodically enters the body of some wretched villager, usually an elderly woman without family to defend her, who then naturally becomes a sorcerer. Sorcerers are frowned upon, blamed for everything bad that happens and brutally slain. This is a tough country in which to be an old lady.

Outside of Goroka I visited two other villages. In the first I watched a courtship dance and in the second saw a performance by the Asaro Mudmen. In the courtship dance, the couples sit on the ground in a line with their legs stretched out straight in front of them. They sit boy-girl-boy-girl with the girls facing in one direction and the boys in the other and begin to sing and chant as they sway left and right against each other. This can go on for hours and, apparently, by the end you know if your intended is sitting next to you or not. My guide met his own wife this way. Online dating can’t compete with sitting on the bug infested ground next to a prospective spouse, chanting a monotonous nonsensical phrase throughout a hot afternoon while rubbing shoulders and stealing quick glances into each other’s eyes. You may very well agree to marry your neighbor just to get away from the ants!

The Asaro Mudmen of Goroka are among the most well known and photographed of the PNG tribes. Their performance was a slow motion demonstration of the battles they have fought with neighboring tribes. Because their tribe was smaller than most of their neighbors and had fewer warriors, the Mudmen began to cover themselves in white mud and wear frightening clay helmets to make their enemies think they were ghosts. They would dig holes and wait in them for the approaching tribe, then rise out of the ground in slow motion and the battle would be over before it had even begun. Now, of course, all their neighbors have caught on to their trick so the Mudmen tend to entertain tourists and sell their clay helmets for 250 kina a pop! Tribal warfare is still pretty common in the highlands but the Mudmen are more or less like everyone else and fight it out with bush knives, bows & arrows and spears. There used to be some fairly well defined rules to tribal warfare that resulted in a lot of shouting and martial display but few if any casualties. Now, however, guns are becoming more common and warfare in the highlands is beginning to resemble warfare everywhere else except, of course, for the white mud and the clay helmets.


Everywhere I went in the highlands and every village I visited treated me to a muu-muu. In Hawaii it would be called a luau and it would probably taste much better. Here a muu-muu is prepared by digging a pit and lining it with rocks that have been heated in a fire. The food is wrapped in banana leaves, placed in the pit and then covered with additional banana leaves and random vegetation. After some period of time the food is judged to be ‘cooked’ and is dug up and served. In every case the food consisted of bland dry sweet potatoes and small dried out bananas. After all the work that went into preparing the meal, the rocks would have had more flavor.

Leaving the highland’s ghosts, sorcerers and muu-muus behind I flew out to Kavieng on New Ireland to do some diving. From Kavieng I took a 20 minute boat ride out to Lissenung Island and moved into one of the four units that make up that resort. The next morning I began a series of dives that covered the next eight days. There is a subtle and generally unspoken competition among divers to be the last to surface (the rule here is that you must still be alive, drowning automatically disqualifies you). It’s a zen thing. Be calm under water, be at peace, find your center, all that crap. A full tank of air holds about 3,000 psi. I’ll use 1,000 psi while I’m adjusting my mask! If there were a prize for surfacing first I’d have a mantle full of trophies.

The dive instructor could tell that it was bothering me so he gave me some invaluable advice. “Smoke cigarettes. They destroy your lung capacity and you inhale less air with every breath,” he said and took a mighty drag on his cigarette. I guess I’ll stick to cigars, but they don’t seem to be helping. The following day on three dives I came up first, first and in a remarkable display of consistency, first. I also have a knack for missing the good stuff even when it’s pointed out to me. My dive buddy was pointing at a bit of coral on one dive. I looked at it pretty closely and nodded that I saw it. It was a nice piece of coral on a solid wall of coral. After we surfaced everyone was excited at having seen a large moray eel. My buddy said, “We saw it too!” Uh, yeah. It’s almost a skill to be able to miss a giant moray eel on a coral wall when your dive buddy is virtually touching its head to help you spot it.

The woman who owns the Lissenung Island Resort goes out to neighboring islands and digs up turtle nests to rebury the eggs on Lissenung. She does this to save the eggs from the locals who dig up the nests to eat the eggs. While I was there two of the nests hatched and dozens of green and hawksbill turtles made it to the sea. It was quite an experience seeing them explode out of the sand and scrabble their way across the sand to the water. With the half dozen guests of the resort providing an honor guard, none of the baby turtles’ traditional predators were able to feed on them and all of them made it into the waves.

Finally, I flew from Kavieng to Rabaul to visit the major Japanese WWII base. In addition to touring the caves they dug and the gun emplacements guarding the harbor, I dove with a group on a site called The Deep Zero. It’s a Japanese fighter that was shot down close to shore and sits undisturbed in about 140 feet of water. The deeper you go, the faster you use your air. In spite of that, I made it down to the plane and almost outlasted one other diver. Although I went up first, everyone else was right behind me. Back on the dive boat the group reviewed the dive and compared the things they’d seen. It seems that there was a yellow moray eel in a hole in the wing. Oh yeah, I totally saw that too. At least I did see the damn plane!

On solid land I went to the base of the very active Tavurvur volcano. In the 90’s this monster erupted and wiped out Rabaul City. You can’t hike up it now because it’s too active and unstable but, for some reason, they’ll let you stand around at its base and gawk up at the fumes and ash raining down on you. Etna, Vesuvius, Stromboli and Tavurvur, hike it or not, I’m adding it to my active volcano collection!!

The islands are a good deal safer and quieter than either Port Moresby or the Highlands. Apart from active and unstable volcanoes, that is. It was nice to be able to go to the market and even ride on a bus neither of which is recommended in Moresby. The diving is excellent and I wasn’t asked to eat muu-muu even once.

In the time it’s taken me to write this, I’ve received a reply from AFSA. Sadly, it appears that my union won’t be calling on all diplomats for a general strike on my behalf. Nor do they recommend that I pursue my argument further. In fact, they recommend that I drop the whole thing. Cavalier treatment, I say, of a man who knows the general location of a cave containing a ghost who, with the right incentive, might just move to DC!! On the bright side, however, I’ve just learned of a man with emphysema who dives once in a while in Moresby. I have every expectation of coming up second in the near future!

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Since Last We Spoke

I suppose the first clue really was when I began to receive unsolicited advice on "how to retire". Up until then I was blithely ignoring the fact that I had moved gently past my fifth decade. In fact, I have never really matured much beyond my early thirties so chronological age was a matter of great indifference to me. I haven't fought growing 'older and wiser' so much as I've just never really thought that the concept applied to me. Peter Pan is my patron saint!

Then, naturally, I met a blonde. Isn't that the way it always begins? She's a young woman, much younger than me, and I fell in love with her at first sight. By the time she threw up on my shirt it was too late, I was already hooked. There's nothing like having a gorgeous blue-eyed blonde four-month old granddaughter to make you sit up and say, "Wow, I'm a grandfather!". It makes me think that I should begin to act my age, so I've begun surreptitiously studying old people to see how they do it. I think having some modicum of dignity seems to be a key factor which is, of course, unfortunate for me.

This is Lilly!

Lilly is just like all babies her age except that she's brighter, prettier and can projectile vomit like a sailor on shore leave. Line up any of your chosen baby competitors and my money is on Lilly to beat the bunch on both distance and viscosity. Even without that undeniably awesome talent, she is amazingly adorable. I'm working desperately now to acquire dignity but I'm pretty sure that I'm going to be a continuing source of embarrassment to her throughout her formative years! It's good to have goals.

At work I assumed that my incredible achievement and unparalleled accomplishment of becoming a grandfather would earn me some small measure of respect from my colleagues. Sadly, most of my younger colleagues do not recognize the effort involved in attaining the status of Grandfather and continue to verbally abuse me on a daily basis. Boy, will their attitudes towards me require a serious adjustment when I become dignified.

Well along the road to Dignity!

Embassy Port Moresby is growing or more accurately continues to grow. When I arrived at the embassy, a bit over two years ago, we were a small easy-going South Pacific outpost with ten officers, no client agencies, and established housing for everyone (more or less, I lived in a hotel for four months but that's an old story). Our Escape & Evacuation vessel, the SS Merio, worked imperfectly and only occasionally but still provided sporadic recreation for the team. For reasons that still puzzle me, Embassy Port Moresby, even in those days, had a terrible reputation among Foreign Service bidders and our open positions went begging. We are officially classified as a Service Needs or Hard To Fill post and the State Dept. finds it necessary to offer a financial incentive to attract bidders.

The reality is that Embassy Port Moresby is a great place in which to serve. In the past two years we've doubled in personnel numbers, added five new Foreign Service officer positions, welcomed four client agencies to the community, expanded our housing pool exponentially, upgraded all our IT systems and begun construction on a new embassy compound down by the waterfront. We represent the United States in one of the most unique and diverse nations on earth. It's true that our work is challenging but that makes everything we accomplish all the more rewarding. Even after doubling in size we're still a small post and that gives us all the advantages inherent in being part of a team with very little fat. At Embassy Port Moresby every single officer has an opportunity to really make a difference. In our monolith embassies you can either get lost or hide and serve unnoticed, not so much in our small posts.

We've just gone through the bidding season to find replacements for those of us who will depart post this coming summer and, once again, Embassy Port Moresby seemed to hold all the allure of a dark dumpster-filled alley in that part of town where cops cruise the streets in pairs. It's true that Papua New Guinea can be an extremely violent place, but so are many of our posts in developing countries around the world and the violence here is random and not targeted at expatriates. In fact, Americans are quite well liked here. And yet, we don't get a whole lot of love during bidding season. However, we did get several bidders for my job and have officially selected my replacement. We offered her a handshake and she accepted it. She appears to be a terrific choice for us and I already feel good about handing the tools of Management power over to her in August! And to encourage further interest in post from any prospective bidders, the SS Merio has been fully overhauled and works with a remarkable degree of consistency.

The SS Merio safely home from the sea!

My immediate goal is to bring some semblance of organization to the section but to do so I should really begin with my desk and just as soon as I find it under the colossally untidy pile of papers, envelopes, pens, coffee cups, rulers, magazines and general debris that cover it, I'll whip it into shape. Once my desk again resembles a desk in the generally accepted sense of the word I'll stride forth from my office with a large club in my hand and bring order to the chaos that is my domain. I jest. My management style runs more to weeping copiously and pleading with my subordinates to cooperate.

In retrospect, now that the end of my tour and career are in sight, I think that I was entirely wrong for this position. I came into it with very little experience in the Management section of the State Dept. and I will retire from this post. Challenging posts like Port Moresby deserve either a very experienced Management officer or an officer who will go on to serve at other posts with the invaluable training acquired here. As it is, I've become a moderately competent Management Officer just in time to take that experience to the golf course where it won't do my short game a bit of good.

I intend to enroll in State's WAE Program after August. State often offers time-limited contracts to retired officers to fill gaps in staffing at posts around the world. A retired officer can work for a maximum of six months a year on this plan and I stand ready to drop my wedges, concede the putt and hop on a plane for almost anywhere at a moment's notice. In my skill set I can boast of modest Management attributes and a propensity for a messy desk! Let's face it, I like working, I truly enjoy my job and I have never forgotten or taken for granted that it is a privilege afforded to few to be allowed to serve in the Foreign Service.

As I now risk becoming maudlin, let me say that not all runs to peaches and cream here in paradise. One of the few arrows in our quiver that we relied upon to entice officers to bid our positions were our differentials. Apart from the Service Needs Differential for officers volunteering to serve here for three years we also enjoy a Hardship Differential and a generous Cost of Living adjustment. This year, State in its infinite wisdom decided that those differentials should be reduced significantly. The wailing and gnashing of teeth at post could be heard far and wide. In State Dept. parlance, post pushed back and I was mildly surprised when we did so successfully. After convincing a senior official from the Allowances section to visit post on a 'fact finding tour' our differentials were restored and all is well in the kingdom.

This 12 foot crocodile lends new meaning to 'water hazard' on our local golf course.

Even without the differentials, I have a very good life here. I dive and play golf on the weekends. I get together with a group of like-minded gentlemen once a month to smoke cigars, sample fine single malt whiskeys and tell tale tales. There is a weekly poker game in which I play badly. The Merio is reserved for recreational outings by our officers almost every Saturday and Sunday. My apartment has a balcony overlooking the Coral Sea and the sunsets are quite spectacular. A trip to any other part of Papua New Guinea is like an excursion to another land due to the incredible diversity of geography, people and customs to be found here. Australia is only an hour away when 'island fever' hits and you need to get away. If you are serving or plan to serve in the Foreign Service, I encourage you to pencil Embassy Port Moresby into your career plans.

Storyboards are hand carved by the tribes in the Sepik region.

Our new embassy currently under construction has been redesigned twice to accommodate our growing community and will be a state of the art building in this city. As with all our new embassies, it will be highly secure yet designed to enhance the waterfront with an impressive 'South Pacific' look to it. It will feature solar panels to supplement city power, a water reclamation plant and plenty of green space. Post advocated strongly for changes in the design that we believe enhance the look and utility of the compound and many of our suggestions have been incorporated into the current architectural plans. I can see the construction site from the front door of my apartment and you can rest easy to know that I'm keeping an eye on things down there. I'm not too certain about which buildings are which but all that will become clearer, I'm sure, as they grow. Anyway, the site is there and lots of guys are doing construction type stuff so all seems well.

I have fewer than 40 weeks left to accomplish everything I wanted to do when I arrived. On Monday I intend to find my desk. I know it's under there somewhere!

She doesn't seem to be a big fan of cigars.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Notes From A Sunny Island

Diplomacy at the Tufi Dive Resort is a serious business!

An advantage of working in a small embassy is that the entire team can pick up and get away together for a teambuilding long weekend. Team Port Moresby flew across the island to the Tufi Dive Resort for a three day weekend of reef diving and diplomacy around the pool. Good cigars and single malt whiskeys sharpened our focus and much was accomplished. Although we never actually sang "Kum ba ya", we did come perilously close to having a group hug at one point. Lit cigars and a certain degree of whiskey induced unsteadiness, however, rendered such a manuver inadvisable, so we settled for a group fist bump instead. We sent the above photo to the Cigar Aficianado magazine and have been told it will appear in their publication in approximately 18 months. In my opinion, that makes the Tufi weekend an unqualified success!

As post's Management Officer, I have seven different areas of responsibility: Finance (FMO), Facilities (FM), Human Resources (HR), Information Technology (IT), the Health Unit (HU), the Community Liaison Office (CLO) and the General Services Office (GSO). The GSO in turn covers six areas: housing, procurement, shipping, travel, warehouse and motor pool. In short, everything that has to do with the functional operation of the embassy comes under the Management section. The Consular section adjudicates visas and provides American citizens' services. The Public Diplomacy, Econ and Political sections each interact with the local government, NGOs, communities and populace then feed the results of those interactions back to their counterparts in the Harry S. Truman Department of State headquarters in Washington, D.C. They write cables, give grants to worthy causes and advocate for our foreign policy. The Management section does everything else. Oh, and we're all for our foreign policy too, team players that's what we are.

When my two year tour in Rome ended, I took an eight week Financial Management Overseas training course at FSI and, armed with that newly minted certificate of achievement and a year's experience as a GSO, flew to Port Moresby and assumed the seat of power as the alpha dog in the Management section. As far as the other five areas were concerned, I knew that FM basically kept the building running, HR dealt with various 'people' issues, IT did the same but with computers instead of people, the HU shop was a "turn your head and cough" dispenser of band-aids and aspirin and the CLO more or less looked after post's small lending library. I was pretty sure I could wing it until I got settled in and, besides, the locally employed staff would help me find my way.

Larger posts have a trained American officer in each of the seven areas of responsibility reporting to the Management Officer. Port Moresby has a first tour GSO and, thankfully, a very experienced Information Management Officer. That made me the American officer in charge of finance, facilities, human resources, health and the community liaison's office. I'd just had the financial management course and how tough could the other areas be, really? I considered myself armed and ready. Overconfidence in one's abilities in the stone cold face of the reality that there is a complete lack of the existence of those abilities is the mark of a weak or failing mind. My locally employed staff quickly made me aware of that reality.

HR/OE is responsible for determining the policies that govern our locally employed staff in our embassies around the world. Our local staff in PNG have been hit particularly hard by the wage freeze that's been in effect for the past two years. As has been noted, this is a ridiculously expensive country in which to live. As diplomats, we enjoy pay differentials and cost of living adjustments to help augment our salaries and ease the financial pain caused by local economic conditions. Our local staff receive no such assistance.

Their salaries and benefits are determined by surveying a set of 'local comparators' and ensuring that our total compensation package falls into some vague and undefined acceptable range. Our local comparators are selected and chosen by HR/OE and, interestingly enough, they do not include Exxon in our comparators group. Exxon, of course, is the 800 lb gorilla in the employment market in PNG. Who you include in and who you exclude from your comparators group is hugely important because your comparators group determines every aspect of the salary and benefits package that your local staff can be offered.

Our very best local staff will leave us for an extra 100 Kina a month, which at today's exchange rate is about $12.50 a week! I've spent my first year at post trying to improve the compensation package we offer our local staff so that we might have a fighting chance to retain the best of them. If you have ever dealt with HR/OE, you won't be surprised to hear that my efforts have been completely unsuccessful. We have two problems here, 1) unemployment runs about 60% in Port Moresby and we receive hundreds of applications for every job vacancy, many of them from people who are actually qualified and 2) our total compensation package is roughly equivalent to most of our comparators. Therefore, as an employer there is, on the surface, no real incentive for us to raise either wages or benefits. The reality is, of course, that people we hire can use the fact that they are employed by the American embassy on their resumes after a year or so to command that extra 100 Kina a month elsewhere. We are the most prestigious farm team in town!

Locally employed staff who have worked at an American embassy for twenty years or more and have good service records are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas or SIVs. In many countries these are highly prized and people will endure all manner of hardships to put in their time to qualify for an SIV. It's an incentive to stay on the job that none of our local comparators in any country can offer and gives us a distinct advantage. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of Papua New Guineans who are interested in acquiring an SIV and most of our local staff don't perceive it as a reason to remain if they can get more money elsewhere.

Recently, I was back in DC to take the Human Resource Officer's training course, one day of which included a field trip to the hallowed halls of HR/OE. "Aha," I thought, "Here's my chance to convince them face to face of our need to improve our benefits package in PNG!" Reasonable people would surely find a way to achieve a mutually beneficial goal.

During our question and answer session with a senior representative from HR/OE, I described my attempts to implement a salary advance plan for our local staff. Any plan of this nature requires their approval and I was pretty certain that I could convince them to give it in this meeting. In order to make ends meet, our staff currently borrow money with interest rates of 30% or higher. With very strict controls, we could allow them to take an advance on their salaries without interest and repay it through payroll deductions. There would be virtually no cost or any risk to the government to put this into effect. I modeled our proposed plan on those that already exist in posts as diverse as Astana and Canberra. It would be a small improvement to our compensation package that our local staff would recognize and appreciate. In my explanation during the class I was earnest, I was serious, in truth, I was pleading. I channeled my inner puppy dog hoping to sway her to the reasonableness of my proposal.

The HR/OE representative then looked at me quite sadly, as if I was depriving a village somewhere of its only idiot, and said slowly and distinctly so that I might understand, "If our comparators don't offer it, we won't consider offering it. We do not/not want to be a market leader."

Ahhh, that goes a long ways towards explaining how Exxon is able to skim the cream of the employment pool.

We then moved into a conversation about the rules and regulations governing hiring practices. Several members of the class seemed troubled by the rigidity of the qualifications and the way they could, inadvertently, rule out the best candidate. Questions were asked. Eyebrows were raised. Heads were shaken.

Several villages, now lacking idiots, were in serious peril, but I was glad for the company.

The HR/OE representative patiently, slowly and distinctly explained that, "We don't want to hire the 'best' candidate, we want to hire the best 'qualified' candidate." 

From the back of the room came the faint rumblings of rebellion. Those of us charged with keeping our embassies running smoothly held onto the somewhat seditious belief that we did, indeed, want to hire the best possible candidate every single time. That to intentionally hire less than the very best candidate was somehow a disservice to the position, the post and the government. Another of my colleagues blurted out, "That just doesn't make any sense!"

Her patience wearing manifestly thin, the good champion of HR/OE drew herself up to the full height of her authority and delivered what is surely HR/OE's mission statement, "Just because something makes sense, doesn't mean that we'll do it."

Since none of us had, until that time, ever heard anyone so defiantly claim mediocrity as their stated goal we made a poster of her statement and displayed it on our classroom wall for the duration of the course.

Unfortunately, for our staff in PNG, when we surveyed our comparators (excluding Exxon, of course, because, apparently, they don't matter), they stated that they did not offer a salary advance plan to their employees. In retrospect, it turns out that they do offer very similar plans but they don't call their plans salary advance plans so they responded negatively to our very specific question..."Do you offer a salary advance plan?" You can probably imagine the reception this explanation received in HR/OE when I renewed my attempt to have them reconsider their refusal to implement the benefit here. Therefore, I will be submitting a new proposal to implement an entirely different plan whereby staff can take a small advance on their salaries (under strictly controlled circumstances) and repay it through payroll deductions. This plan is offered by every single one of our comparators and is called a Salary Sacrifice plan. I have great hopes for it. Our head cashier and our facilities supervisor are the two most recent staff to resign. The parade continues. 

The Sogeri SingSing was held just outside of Port Moresby.

SingSings are gatherings of different tribal groups at celebrations throughout the country. The largest and most famous of these are the ones held in the Highlands, in Goroka and Mt. Hagen but virtually any community can and does sponsor a singsing. Recently, a school in the Sogeri District of Port Moresby held a singsing and attracted half a dozen or so groups to perform. It was scheduled to begin at 9:00am on a Sunday and a bunch of us from the embassy drove out to watch. Several of us had another commitment that afternoon and had to leave by 12:00 but that would give us three hours to see the show and take some photos. We had forgotten that the 9:00am start time was PNG time. We managed to take some pictures of the groups milling around, practicing and warming up and then, right at 12:00, as we were leaving, we saw the first group head down towards the stands to begin their performance. I understand from the reviews in the local press that it was an exceptionally moving singsing. 

Home internet here can cost up to $1,000 a month depending on your level of usage. Most of us keep it in the $200 to $300 range by doing little more than checking our email. In spite of the astronomical fees, it still tends to crash every weekend. When you call Hitron's number to see if they can get it back up and working, you get a recording that says, "Hitron's normal hours of business are from 8:00am until 5:00pm Monday through Friday. If you require assistance outside of our normal working hours, please contact us using our 'Nights and Weekends' number." And, thoughtfully, the recording goes on to give you the 'Nights and Weekends' number.

Well, sure enough, on the Saturday of a three-day weekend, the internet crashed at my place so I dialed the 'Nights and Weekends' number to see if they could manage to get me back online. I listened attentively to the recording that said, "Thank you for calling Hitron's 'Nights and Weekends' line for assistance. Please leave your account number, phone number and a brief description of your problem and we will return your call sometime after we open for business." Then it disconnected. Oh well, for approximately $1,000 a month, you can't really expect much more.

I am fascinated by the content of local television in the various countries in which I've lived. In Bulgaria I could watch sumo wrestling broadcast live from Japan almost any hour of the day. I slowly became a fan and I find myself sometimes wondering how Harumafuji and Jokoryu are faring in the ring. In Pakistan the local television broadcasts were packed full of shows and movies from Bollywood. Considering the longstanding animosity between India and Pakistan, I always found this quite interesting and personally enjoyed the wildly colorful entertainment. In Rome I watched the Italian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" and used it to improve my language skills.

Our cable television in PNG comes from Australia and contains syndicated shows from the US and England as well as original productions from Down Under. HBO, CNN and the BBC are all staples of the daily fare. However, if you watch any of the Australian channels, it's the commercials that offer a different perspective from that with which you are familiar. In addition to the usual attempts to sell cars, laundry soap and fast food, we have been inundated lately with bull commercials.

It is a common belief that many commercials are, indeed, bull but what we're talking about here are commercials to sell bulls. Real, honest-to-goodness bulls. From the commercials I've seen, they are incredibly large actual bulls and are probably not suitable as household pets although many of them have endearing features, smooth multicolored coats and an undeniably bovine calmness. At any rate, the Edge (my apartment building) does not allow pets so it would be difficult for me to acquire one. However, I am now becoming quite a connoisseur of bulls, which will surely help me in some aspect of my career. 

I was fortunate enough to have been invited to accompany the ambassador on a trip to the Solomon Islands in August to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the marines landing at the Battle of Guadalcanal. I toured the battle grounds, saw Alligator Creek and the Bloody Ridge and stood on the spot where Douglas Munro, the only Coastguardsman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, laid down his life in defense of marines trapped on Honiara's beach. I watched sunsets over Ironbottom Sound where approximately 26 U.S. Navy warships were sunk in sea battles with the Tokyo Express coming down the Slot. The Marine Band played at ceremonies honoring the fallen, at the inauguration of a memorial to the under appreciated Coastwatchers and at the memorial to Douglas Munro.

This plaque marks the spot where Douglas Munro was killed.

Their most moving concert, however, was the one they volunteered to give at a school on their only scheduled day off. Several hundred school children cheered and applauded each and every piece played by the marines. The band began the concert by playing the Solomon Islands national anthem and the student body stood and sang like a choir. Later, several of the marines told me that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences they'd ever had as musicians.

The gentleman seated in front of me, wearing an orange shirt, is the last remaining survivor of the Solomon Islanders who rescued John F. Kennedy when his boat, the PT109, was sunk during WWII.

As there were no direct flights back to PNG from the Solomons, we were forced to overnight in Brisbane. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that we'd packed our golf clubs in our luggage. A weekend of golf in Australia is now considered an integral part of any diplomatic mission! I played enthusiastically albeit not well. In PNG we play on the only golf course in town as frequently as possible. Our regular foursome consists of me, the Ambassador, the RSO and a local American businessman. Because the Ambassador is in the group, we have to have a security detail accompany us around the course. Because caddies are mandatory at this club, our entourage thus becomes the four of us, our four caddies, one or two fore caddies (to find the occasional stray shot) and a couple of local security guards. It is a great comfort to us all to see the security guards well armed with bows and arrows. The French ambassador was held up on the golf course not too long ago by two men armed with bush knives so bows and arrows are the local equivalent of an arms race. 

That's about it for now. I run around the embassy addressing issues and challenges like a man playing whack-a-mole. If we make it through a day without losing power, water or airconditioning I give myself a small gold star and a discreet pat on the back. We're expecting several new additions to our post community as new agencies and new State Dept. positions join us. The chancery isn't getting any larger so folks are being asked to shift their offices around to help accommodate the new arrivals. This, as you can imagine, isn't always met with sunshine and smiles, but one of the benefits of working in a very small post is that, eventually, everyone pitches in and does what's required. None of the challenges we face here are insurmountable and we're making progress on all fronts.

I firmly believe that we will even sway HR/OE around to our way of thinking sooner or later. Although I do poke some fun at them, they help us manage what is surely the world's most diverse and multi-national workforce and our local employment practices would be chaotic without them. They work hard at ensuring that our workplace practices are as uniform as possible across hugely varied cultures, legal systems and environments. Without this level of uniformity, no international organization could function effectively. My responsibility is to draft my proposals so that they meet all the requirements that govern our human resources policies and I'm working my way up that learning curve now. 

By the way, I just noticed that one of the more prominent bull sellers is willing to take a credit card payment on line. It's really just a question now of what to name the big lug and whether or not I can have it delivered in the pouch!